Finally in theatres after premiering more than 13 months ago, Disobedience is director Sebastian Lelio’s follow up to his academy award winning film A Fantastic Woman. Like the brilliant low budget movie Apostasy, Disobedience portrays an insider’s view of a fiercely oppressive religious community and the resulting torment of being torn between your self and your home.
The film begins with the death of a rabbi and follows three former childhood friends, reunited by his death; the rabbi’s prodigal daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz), his most devoted disciple Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) who is being groomed by the elders as his replacement as the community’s spiritual leader and Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman they both love. Ronit left to live her own life many years earlier and on her return into a community all quietly judging her, whether for her homosexuality, for apostatising, for leaving her father, or for leaving them, finds that her best friend has married her first and only love.
Despite its larger budget, it’s a less histrionic movie than Apostasy. Portraying a less extreme situation with more of its focus on potent symbolism and quiet internal struggles than the raw cutting emotion of Kokotajlo’s film. It’s most intense and meaningful moments like Ronit looking over her estranged father’s deathbed, lack dialogue, the story told through the subdued performances and feelings too long left unexpressed.
Where the film excels most in this respect is in its depiction of the romance between Esti and Ronit. Their affection is compressed into agonisingly held gazes swiftly averted and tender arm brushes as they walk by each other’s sides. This results in one of the best onscreen sex scenes in recent years as a decade’s repressed emotion finally coming pouring out in a torrent of affectionate action.
Perhaps what sets the film apart from other films of its kind is the addition of Dovid to the triangle. Usually, this character would be a mere bigoted inconvenience for our heroines to overcome, but here he is given layers of sympathy. We feel both his love of Esti and for his community and faith and we are invested in seeing which wins out in him as well. It’s not as powerfully done as in Apostasy but it’s still a positive added dimension. The film works as well as it does because all three of these characters feel like real people and earn the viewer’s sympathy.
The film does a very good job at creating a sense of this community in both its social aspects and its dangers, the power that the fracture of a tenet has and the weight not just of society but of history. The departed Rav remains, haunting his descendants as they negotiate the new feelings his absence has allowed to blossom.
Although not quite a masterpiece as I have previously found many similar films like Summertime and Show Me Love more affecting, this is a moving and more than worthy addition to the canon of queer cinema and tales of homosexual emancipation.